Cross-country is not road racing. Characterized by varying distances, often in between specific measurements, all sorts of surfaces and terrain, elevation gains and dips, run in seemingly remote locations, nature under you; over you; all around you, no worry of a PR because every race is a PR. I took a break from the roads and did a small cross-country season and loved it.
The Southern California Association of USA Track and Field offered a sweet cross-country grand prix. They compassionately offer prize money for the master's division and I always appreciate that. As it turned out though, some of the toughest competition was in the master's division.
As previously reported, the first race for me in the series was a few weeks ago in Ventura, the Twilight's Last Gleaming 4 miler. It was an awesome race featuring a long, steep climb in the first mile, the "Wall" in the 2nd mile, and an irate, dis-compassionate, unsportsman-like lunatic of a coach in the finishing mile. That was last week's news. The past two weeks brought a final qualifying race and a championship race.
The qualifying race was held last weekend at Will Roger's State Park in Pacific Palisades. This spectacular park sits up in the Santa Monica Mountains and features an almost continuous view of the Pacific Ocean. The park also possesses the only remaining polo field in LA. When I arrived on the crisp, dry Saturday, I was first greeted by a herd of grazing deer. No matter how many deer I see in my lifetime, I will always find them breath-taking to behold. They paid no mind to me and I watched them buck around, drink and graze while I began my warm-up. The air that morning was too dry, too hot and I knew that regardless of pace or effort, it was going to hurt to breath. Dry air is a nemesis of mine and causes my bronchial tubes to rebel into spasm and chaos. Unfortunately, this tends to begin with my first hard breath, and in this case, lasted a whole week following the race.
I got a nice verbal course description from one of my fellow competitors. She told me the 4.5 mile course is two loops up to Inspiration Point. What? Two? Up? Yah, so basically you go 1 mile up, 1 mile down, 1 mile up, 1 mile down, and then you drag your butt around the polo field to the finish. See, cross-country is so cool. It is fully unpredictable.
The races were run by gender, so our race featured the 8 female competitors who needed this race to complete their two race requirement for the grand prix. There were 4 open women (39 and under) and 4 master's women. Need I say I began to worry about having to bring up the rear?
There was no gun. There was simply a "go." What is it with these LA women - they have no sense of pacing. Everyone took off like they were running a downhill mile and there's only 8 of us so you have to hang. It's hard to run your own race in such a setting. But it wasn't long before everyone began to slow, string out along the course in a particular order, and breath with much difficulty as the course wound up onto the first loop of the switch-backs to the top. I settled in somewhat near two of the other master's women, but didn't keep track of anyone else. I had no idea what place I was in, nor did it matter that much to me. I knew a few were behind me and a few were ahead of me. I was in pain. Every breath hurt from the beginning and the 80'ish degree air at 8:00 am in the morning might as well have been 100 degrees in Death Valley. The only race urge in me was to simply keep moving in forward motion hoping for the elusive "top of the hill" to come very soon. I tried to put out of my mind the fact that this was only loop #1. Up, up, up we strode and I may have passed someone, I'm not sure. When we crested the top I saw a few ladies not far ahead, striding into the long, gradual downhill. They were right there, yet they were so far away. I had hoped the downhill would bring recovery and relief but though the pace naturally quickened, my lungs still screamed for mercy. Dry, hot, dusty air and spasming bronchial tubes.
On the next loop, the female directly ahead of me finally gave in to the relentless climb back up and doubled over for some gasps of air. I passed her feeling the urge to encourage her but having no strength of voice to force the words. I could relate to the pain she must have been feeling but in my mind I reminded myself to just keep moving - once I made it to the next top, it was downhill from there. So I journeyed on with painful breaths, saw the gap widen between me and the other "old lady" ahead of me. Finally to the top of the second loop, I fell into the downhill with grateful loping strides but still found it difficult to push and to breath. I did my best to let my body do most of the work using gravity instead of power. I held my own and finally found the finish chute in 4th place. Beaten by only one Open woman, I finished as the third master. Old ladies rule.
My lungs were very unhappy and I struggled to breath for a while after I finished. Each breath remained painful for the remainder of the day and into the next. From there I suffered with a lingering sore throat while coughing to remove stuff that shouldn't be there. It was like I had this awful chest cold, only I didn't have a cold. I just had all the symptoms. This lasted through the week and unfortunately followed me into the final championship race.
The Championship race was held this past Saturday at Kenneth Hahn Park in West LA. This park has a reputation. The reputation is ... gophers. Randomly in the days before, three different people mentioned to me the issue of gopher holes at this particular location. This park features a crater-like grass oval that can only be described as a gopher and ground squirrel's best friend and a runner's worst nightmare. The course was of European design which meant, all grass, and was a 3 loop 6K distance. To say that there was no fair footing to manage on this course would be an understatement. It was fully riddled with trap-doors of collapsing tunnels, tufts of crab grass mixed with thick soggy areas, random holes and to make it all the more fun, a steep climb up a root infested hill onto a gruesome false flat. And this was to be done three times. It was awesome! Like, true cross-country with the real threat of bodily harm. John and I laughed audibly many times while warming up and trying to do strides on the opening 25 meter stretch had me almost rolling on the ground with "you gotta be kidding me" belly giggles. The funniest thing though was listening to the other master's runners, especially the men - in fact only the men. They were like the biggest weenies, complaining about the injuries they were sure to get. The "I'm too old for this" cross-sectioned with "well, I'm not going to be able to do more than 10 minute pace on this junk." "Should I keep my bi-focals on? Can't see the contour of the ground as well with my bi-focals." Then the guys tried to psyche themselves up. One coach called his old guys together for a huddle and pep-talk. "Shoot. I didn't come to this race to get injured." "Huh, you should have seen last year's course - it was even worse."
So the master's men and women toed the line of this championship course while the race director, who was also running in the race, explained the course. "The red flags are always on your Left, and the green flags are always on your Right, the blue flags just mean go straight on either side." Wait a minute, the red flags are on the left, or right, can't remember. No gun, just a "go." And we were off like a limping flock of albatross trying to catch flight but unable to muster the speed. The first thing I notice is a couple of orange cones ahead of me. He didn't say anything about cones. Which side should I take to go around them? That lunatic coach is watching. Oh heck, I'll just jump over them. Oh, is that a big hole - out of my mouth comes, "Um, I guess those were there for a reason." But no broken ankle yet. What is it with me and the orange cones? Dead on, I hit the next orange cone, like I'm attracted to them or something. Cones, I discovered, mean "hazzard". They needed about 500 more orange cones out there. Down the grass, around the big tree, back up the grass, arms flying all over the place, around the next bend, through the sloshy, thick, wet grass section, up the steep ground squirrel mountain, over the roots, yes, lungs burning already and it's only loop #1. The best footing was up along the rim and we actually had the option of jumping onto the pavement up there for a short stretch. Ah ankle and knee relief, but back onto the grass for the "if you make it down without breaking something it's a miracle" downhill portion. From there it was through the desert of gopher holes (and this is where the tunnels will cave in under your feet so step lightly), around another tree, but make sure that green flag is to your right, um or left, can't remember. Back up through gopher hole haven (must have been a resort area for them) around another bend and back to the start for the beginning of loop #2.
Three of those and then finally, and although it was only 23 minutes, it felt like an hour so when I say finally, I mean FINALLY, I make some sort of effort to finish strong, or at least to finish standing up. The finish always means one thing first ... Oxygen. They placed the medal around my neck while I was leaning forward shamelessly on my knees. My predecessors were lying around in heaps so I know we all had a similar race. Three seems to be my lucky number. I was yet again third master's female. With this concluding race being worth double points, I also secured third place in the grand prix.
Cross-country as I said, is unpredictable. That's what makes it so fun. I enjoyed my short little cross-country season. It was a fitting end to a long come-back from a year of injury and to make it through these last three grueling races without re-injuring myself must be a good sign. Challenges strengthen us. I feel stronger.